How to Win a Debate, Before it Even Begins (The Mismeasure of Candidates, Part 3)

The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1981 by Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould, is described as “The definitive refutation of the argument of The Bell Curve.” The latter book (by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray) wasn’t published until 1994. Wait a minute—Dr. Gould won this debate more than a decade in advance!! How is this possible?

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Princeton psychologist Leo Kamin (who later moved to Northeastern, where I attended graduate school) provides some insight. In his view, Gould had “effectively anticipated and thoroughly undermined” the arguments that were later made in The Bell Curve. However, that Dr. Gould was a brilliant thinker and a superb writer is only part of the story.

People often ask the team at Cangrade why we are so confident that a fledgling startup company will successfully compete with existing large corporations and their traditional methodologies. The short answer was provided by our CEO Mike during an interview with The Boston Herald: “We’re that good.” While I agree with Mike, this is only part of our story as well.

How can debates be won in advance? Here are some of the basic principles:

1. Acknowledge up front that attitudes, motivations, and beliefs are involved. These things reveal potential sources of bias. This may seem like a bad idea because such information could be used against you, but it is not. This acknowledgement allows you to consider—in advance—whether your arguments or interpretation of evidence are biased. Any accusation of bias will be old news after that, and it can easily be addressed. More importantly, no one is truly “objective.” Failure or unwillingness to identify your own potential bias makes you, as Gould politely put it, “disingenuous.”

At Cangrade, fairness is a core value. We are against unfair hiring practices. I will openly admit that I am also specifically against things such as racism and sexism, and that these beliefs have the potential to cloud my judgment. But their relevance is negligible when we consider the available evidence. Companies that use more fair and objective methods (such as multivariate personality assessment or structured interviews) hire better employees and profit from it in tangible (financial) and intangible (reputational) ways. The benefits are still there, even if we care nothing for social justice. This focus on fairness is also why we avoid assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that use unsubstantiated theories to determine astrology-like (stereo)types of people. I do not believe that there are “good” or “bad” personality traits, just different people living different lives; and that there is not one specific “type” of person that would be best suited to a particular job. Fortunately for me, the use of the MBTI and related measures has been outdated by failed validation attempts and the advent of superior statistical and assessment techniques.

2. History repeats itself. As Gould puts it, “the same bad arguments recur…with a predictable and depressing regularity. No sooner do we debunk one version than the next chapter of the same bad text emerges to ephemeral prominence.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The historical roots of a debate are often overlooked as we focus on things that are “new.”

As I mentioned earlier, Cangrade has many competitors. Some old, some new, and some that don’t even exist yet. Why are we so confident in our own superiority? Because history repeats itself. We often do research companies out there in the world of employee selection, engagement, development, and retention. Sometimes at the request of our partners and potential clients, and sometimes just for our own edification. These companies are largely the same in their “bad arguments”: flawed logic, inferior and outdated methodology, and a lack of objective evidence that their products or services provide a tangible benefit. These common themes are usually at the other end of a google search rather than in a history book, but the same basic principle applies: they were already there, and have been for quite some time. In comparisons between Cangrade and competitors, we have already won most of these “debates” well before they even began (though of course I still have to re-iterate the specifics of the arguments to people).

3. Know the actual evidence available (and not just the arguments or conclusions drawn by the people who provided the evidence). This is by far the easiest thing to overlook. It is tempting to rely on the opinions of experts; it is expedient, powerful, and gives us instant credibility just by proxy. If you dig deeper into the specific logic and evidence of any argument (yours or others) many of the seemingly bulletproof expert opinions can be easily bolstered or dismantled. Once we remember that history repeats itself, it is clear that doing this thoroughly enough all but guarantees many victories to come.

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